The earliest reference to a military barracks in Derry is before 1738, when the old barracks in Schoales Lane, now Bank Place, was moved to the new premises at the bottom of Shipquay Street on the western side of the old city. Behind this area stood the old tower, which the army used as a powder magazine and today is recorded by the street name Magazine Street. The present Tower Museum now stands on the site of the old powder magazine. This 'new' barracks was still there in 1788 and was referred to as 'the King's store' in 1799 and on the same map the former Bishop's Palace in Bishop Street became the barracks.
The next move was sometime before 1834 when the army barracks shows up on the Valuation Map for the City in 1834 in Foyle Street against the River Foyle. The officer's mess is also shown opposite the main barracks. There was also a horse barracks situated in Foyle Road at the same year. The site of the main barracks was badly chosen as it was always damp and there were many complaints about its position on the river's edge.
The move to the Waterside
The decision to move to another site on higher ground on the eastern side of the Foyle caused much resentment and in 1816 Sir George Fitzgerald Hill, MP writes to Robert Peel in Dublin about not moving it across the river, even though the new wooden bridge had been constructed. Some years pass by without a decision being made and finally a decision is made in 1829 to move to the Waterside site which cover over ten acres in the town land of Clooney. The actual move did not happen for a further twelve years. The land they were to move to was agricultural land sitting on a plateau.
An advertisement for tenders for the building of the new barracks was published in April of 1841. The barracks was not actually built until 1841 when it is recorded in the Derry Journal that engineers had been staking out the boundaries of the site. The Foundation Stone is recorded on a plaque within building no. 25 that the stone was laid on the 26th July 1841 and that the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Viscount Ebrington named it 'Ebrington Barracks' on Queen Victoria's birthday. Lord Ebrington later that year became Earl Fortescue on the death of his father. His title of Viscount Ebrington comes from a small village in the north Cotswolds called Ebrington.
The layout of the new barracks was in the shape of a star fort and buildings were laid out on three sides overlooking the City and the River Foyle. The fort covered some ten acres plus the slob land against the river. The map of 1848 shows the main uses for these buildings and many of them still stand today as they were built. The western wall fortifications as built are still intact, but the two bastions to the east are gone, but a major part of the old outer wall still stands Local newspaper, the Londonderry Standard records the dates for the erection of a large tank in 1844 and the Barrack Master's house in 1846.
Important archaeological site from 1689
The actual site of the star fort from older maps is also the position of the place known as 'Strong's Orchard', which was a fort used by James 2nd forces to bombard the City in 1689 with cannon and mortar fire. In 1878 soldiers digging a drain came across pieces of mortar shells inside the barracks. It is important that any deep holes, etc dug within this site are carefully looked at by archaeologists as further material may turn up. The present parade ground should be archaeologically surveyed as it has never been built over during the life of the barracks.
The barracks after 1850
A copy of a coloured Royal Engineers' plan of the barracks has turned up in the National Archives in London and is dated 1850 at a scale of 50 feet to one inch. (Ref. No. MPHH 1/631).
The Ordnance Survey map dated 1853 shows the star fort and gives some detail as to what the main buildings were used for. The then new railway line to Coleraine had been constructed on the slob land to the west of the barracks and an underpass had to be constructed to reach the river. The Ordnance Survey map of 1873 shows the barracks very clearly and was becoming very built up. The main buildings had to be added to by the erection of six wooden huts for temporary quarters. An old photograph clearly shows these huts and they remained in use until the 1890s and were then replaced by two new buildings numbered 65 and 70 on the modern map of the barracks. Today number 65 has been replaced by a new building so only one of the original pair is left. These buildings would have been erected around 1890.
Extensions to Ebrington barracks
With the lack of space within the old star fort it was necessary to acquire the field to the south from a Mr. Bond around 1875, which allowed the barracks to greatly extend and to erect two fine stone married quarters. Only one now remains from this extension ie 'Cunningham' block. Further land for was also sought in 1890 and it took to 1895 to vest the area to the north east, using an Act of Parliament, from the Hill estate who owned the St.Columb's demesne and had refused to sell from 1890.
Land was also purchased from the Bond family, who lived in the house called 'Clooney' for a larger entrance to the barracks off the Limavady Road. Around 1900 the area of the barracks had extended to 27.5 acres.
On the river side the slob land against the river had been cut through by the then new railway line in late 1840s and the barracks had to have an underpass constructed to the garrison ferry to the City side operated by a Mr. McKeever for one penny per person. The remaining sloping land under the western fortifications was used for vegetable growing for many years.
The barracks after 1900
With the extra land purchased to the north east in 1895 an extensive building plan was put into action and a new officer's mess was built in 1904. In the south east corner of this new acquisition. It was built of red brick and has two bays to the front with a Coat of Arms over the front porch. To the north of this block two small buildings that look like semi-detached houses were also built and a long thin barracks was also constructed. It now appears that the building firm belonging to Joseph Colhoun erected most of this large extension over a period of four years.
On the northern edge of the site further stores, soldiers' quarters and a school were constructed together with two large accommodation blocks, one called 'Benbow' and the other was called 'Raleigh', which had verandas built on their southern sides. Inside the star fort the six old wooden huts had been replaced by two single storey buildings as a matching pair on each side of the main barrack block. Only one of these is now left standing. At the southern gate a new guard house has been erected and a single storey block to the west beyond the 'Cunningham' block. A new barracks block has also been built within the old fort to the north of the cookhouse. All of these buildings are on the 1904 OS sheet.
To the west of the star fort there is an oval enclosed yard which has been there since the fort was built. It has had various uses from a 'fuel yard' to the 'engineer's yard'. In the middle of it today is a small single storey building which was erected around 1900 and appears on the 1904 map and also appears half constructed in an early photograph. To the north of this oval yard is a rectangular single storey building, which first appears on the 1908 OS map. The 1908 OS map shows that two tennis courts had also been laid out behind the Officers’ Mess. The present houses at Browning Drive, also known as St.Columb's Park, had not yet been built.
World War I (1914-1918)
In 1914 the barracks was home to the 1st Battalion The Cheshire Regiment and old postcard images reflect this period of the barracks history very well. It is also recorded that elements of Irish Regiments ie 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the Royal Inniskillen Dragoon Guards were stationed there. Their magazine 'Sprig of Shilleleagh' was printed there during the First World War, but it was moved to Oswestry after 1918.
An interesting item from the 'Sprig of Shilleleagh' dated March 1915, records the thoughts of a wounded soldier from the Inniskillings stationed at Ebrington and was returned to its hospital and he was asked what he thought of France:
‘To be sure sorr, its not much of France that I've seen. I got into a train alongside a trooper, there was such a divil of a jam I could not see out of the window. When I got out of the train I was hit by a piece of shrapnel, got put into an ambulance and being on my back I could not see anything until I got back to Dover - that's what I saw of France!'
Two famous writers were stationed in Ebrington Barracks during part of the First World War. They were the poet Francis Ledwidge (1887-1916) and the 18th Baron Dunsany, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett (1878-1957).
Francis Ledwidge was born in Slane, County Meath and was always writing poetical untutored verses. His local landlord was Lord Dunsany, who was also interested in the Celtic revival. Lord Dunsany joined the Royal Inniskilling Fusilers in 1914 and Francis Ledwidge also joined the same regiment and became a corporal. The regiment was sent to Ebrington Barracks in 1916 after serving in Serbia, Greece and Egypt. Lord Dunsany rented a house near Derry called Government House and he allowed Francis to have a room in it to write his poems. While he was in the barracks he composed some 47 poems including his poem entitled 'Derry'. He was very interested in the 1916 rising and it was Lord Dunsany who prevented him from deserting to join the Rising in Dublin.
The Regiment was transferred to France in December 1916 and sadly Francis Ledwidge was killed in on 31st July 1917. He is buried in Boesinghe Cemetrey and has a plaque erected to his memory in Slane, County Meath.
After World War I
The OS sheet of 1932 shows that the ground to the north east had been mainly covered with wooden huts and may have been there since the First World War. The buildings to the eastern side where the present workshops are have been built. The main gate is still at the south eastern edge of the barracks and had a stone archway out on to the Limavady Road. Old photographs exist of soldiers marching within the barracks in the 1930s and this arched gateway is clearly shown. This gateway was once badly damaged by an army lorry hitting it and eventually it was demolished to widen the Limavady Road and a new entrance created from Browning Drive.
World War II (1939-1945)
In 1939 Ebrington Barracks was home to the Welsh Borderers regiment, but with the outbreak of war with Germany on 3rd September 1939 the barracks was to become a very important part of Londonderry's contribution to the war effort. It was summarised by Professor J. W. Blake in his book on 'N.Ireland in the Second World War' written in 1956. He states:
'Londonderry held the key to victory in the Atlantic. It became our most westerly base for the repair, the working up and refuelling of destroyers, corvettes and frigates. By that critical spring (1943) when battle for the security of our Atlantic lifelines finally turned our way, Londonderry was the most important escort base in the north-western approaches. Everybody at Londonderry co-operated in this supreme effort and all was controlled from Combined Naval and Air Headquarters, housed in Magee College.'
Within a short time men were being 'called up', but men and women in N.Ireland were 'volunteers'. The German Airforce bombed Derry on 15th April 1941 and two parachute mines fell on Messines Park at Pennyburn and 13 people were killed and 33 were injured. The bombing of Derry was to try and disable the former Ebrington Barracks, which had been taken over by the Royal Navy in December 1940 and renamed HMS Ferret. The Navy had also taken over the old shipyard at Pennyburn, now known as 'Fort George', as a ship repair yard and was operated by men from the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast.
In February 1941 the main HQ for the Western Approaches was transferred from Plymouth to Liverpool and Derry became the backup to Derby House in Liverpool. During the war Derry was the home to over two hundred ships of the Royal Navy, The American Navy, The Royal Canadian Navy and the Free French and Free Dutch Navies. Some ships from the Royal Indian Naval Reserve were also based in Derry for convoy duties. The HQ for the Western Approaches was housed in two large underground bunkers in the grounds of Magee College and the staff also used Talbot House and Aberfoyle as accommodation.
The sinking of many supply ships in the Atlantic made America agree to a secret deal with Churchill in which America would supply fifty aging destroyers for four bases within the UK. The base at Lisahally was agreed to and on 30th June 1941 400 American technicians arrived at HMS Ferret and began their work in civilian clothes. America only came into the war officially after Pearl Harbour in December 1941. HMS Ferret became the main base for all naval operations covering the Western Approaches and was to become the main Royal Navy base for anti- submarine operations during the Second World War.
These Americans were first housed in HMS Ferret and they then moved out to other camps constructed at Clooney Base, Springtown, Belmont, Creevagh and Lisahally. The American Marines also moved into Derry to guard these bases and they were billeted at Beechhill House. They also constructed two large ammunition dumps at Kilnappy and Finglen. The ammunition barges were moored at Rosses Bay and were kept away from most shipping lanes. During the Second World War the numbers of Allied troops, sailors etc numbered over twenty thousand. The ships docking at Lisahally could refuel and replenish their stores and rest crews using during the war up to 1945 when they left.
It was during November 1942 that President Roosevelt's wife Eleanor visited the City to see the sailors and marines and she visited some ships at the American Naval Base. She stayed in the city overnight at the home of Captain V. L. Kirkman, the Base Commander. Mrs. Roosevelt was accompanied by Lady Montgomery the mother of the Field Marshall.
HMS Ferret was home to many service personnel and many of the main buildings were used by WRNS, known as 'WRENS', as quarters and places of work. Building 70 was the Pay office and the 'WRENS' were quartered in Building 49. Many WRENS also served at the American Base and in the ammunition depots. WRENS from Canada also served in Derry.
The Base was also the place where secret projects were worked out to supply new equipment to try to outwit the German U-boats. The invention of the Squid Mortar was developed within the Base, possible within the workshops at Buildings 121 to 124. Buildings 110,111 and 123 were later used to train personnel to handle items on ship's decks etc and it is known that building 111 had a full cross-section of a destroyer's deck built inside it. It is still not clear if they was there during most of the war, but they were there after 1948.On the 1948/52 plan these buildings are known as Tatical Floors 1 and 2 and Joint Anti-submarine Training (JAST).
The Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted all of the Second World War, was the longest battle of the war and the guarding of the vital convoys from America and Canada were important to the UK. The German U-boat fleet was greatly increased in numbers up to 1943 when the war turned in favour of the United Kingdom and the UK and its Allies started to win in North Africa and then in Italy.
In May 1945 the German U-boat fleet finally surrendered to bases in Scotland and Derry and at least 60 U-boats were brought to the city and moored at Lisahally. After the Second World War many of the former Servicemen and women came back to visit Derry and recently a Memorial was unveiled at Lisahally in their memory.
After World War II
With the war ended in Europe and also in Japan in 1945 HMS Ferret was looked at by the Admiralty as to what they should do with the base. It appears from a record in the Public Record Office in London that it was re-named HMS Phoenix and this seems likely until it eventually became HMS Sea Eagle in 1947. The newspaper accounts of September 1945 and November 1946 state the uncertainty of the Base, but with the visit of the then First Sea Lord, Sir John Cunningham, in November 1946 it was agreed that the base should remain an anti-submarine base, but be a proper training base for such work.
Former hospital connected with Ebrington barracks and soldiers' home
In 1940 or early 1941 it was decided to build a large temporary hospital across the road from the base in Browning Drive. This was to cater for any Royal Naval personnel injured from convoy ships or for any Servicemen or women injured and shipped into Derry. The aerial photograph shows the extent of this temporary hospital as it was after the Second World War in 1948. When the war ended it was considered too good to be dismantled and was retained by the local Health Board until the 1970s and re-named St. Columb's Hospital. Its early use was for TB sufferers. The site has now been cleared and is available for re-development.
The Old Soldiers' Home, which used to stand south of the old main gate to the Barracks, was erected in 1901 and was designed by the Derry architect Matthew Robinson who also went on to design Austins shop and the present Guildhall in the city.
The building was later taken over as a Sandes Home, but that was eventually abandoned and it was acquired by the Roads Service for road widening at that corner of the Limavady Road.
HMS Sea Eagle
In 1947 it was decided that the Base would become a Joint Anti-submarine Training Base along with the Fleet Air Arm. The flying section would be based at the old wartime airfield at Eglinton and it would be called HMS Gannet. The Base was greatly added to with new buildings over its life until 1970 when it reverted to an army barracks and renamed Ebrington Barracks. The OS map of 1953 shows the extent of the buildings within the Base. The newspaper cutting of a July edition of the Londonderry Sentinel states that HMS Sea Eagle has closed and Ebrington Barracks has returned.
Plan of HMS Sea Eagle from 1948/52
A 1948 plan shows how detailed HMS Sea Eagle was and how the sections worked together. All the buildings are named or a use is given. It would be possible to locate much older copies of the layout but they would be held in the Public Records Office in London and an expert on Admiralty records would be needed. The local Defence Estates office could not find any earlier copies. The Valuation and Lands Agency were also contacted in order to try and locate their Treasury Valuer's file on the barracks but they were unable to locate the older files.
Buildings 76 and 104
Building 76 on the EHS plan was formerly the main cookhouse for the original barracks block and was built in 1841. The building is named as a 'Cookhouse' on the 1848 plan and it appears to have been later extended to the north. Some time later it became a 'store' and on the 1948/52 plan it is called a 'Provisions Store'. Nearby is a large underground water tank with a pump to supply water for the cookhouse. It may be that this tank was constructed in 1844.
Building 104 is a large red brick barracks built after 1895 to house the extra men needed to staff the then new headquarters for the west. This building, along with others, formed the northern edge of the barracks. The building was one of a large group built by the Derry builder, Joseph Colhoun, from 1895 to around 1900.
Named buildings from the 1948/52 plan
Within the present barracks there are two 'named' buildings and these are 'Benbow' and 'Cunningham'. Other buildings named after senior Naval or RAF personnel were: